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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

The Cabinet of Curiosities

Reviewed: September 20, 2006
By: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Publisher: Warner Books
640 pages, $10.99

The team of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have delivered several books of what we might call the “Indiana Jones meets Sherlock Holmes meets the X-files” variety, in which ancient artifacts turn out to be the key element in a modern day horror story which is solved with a certain forensic clarity after many bloody events.

These haven’t all featured exactly the same cast of characters, but some of the people in The Cabinet of Curiosities have been in various of the other books, so we’re beginning to see a sort of loose-knit group forming.

Central to this story is FBI Special Agent Pendergast, whose first name we do not know. He turned up in both The Relic and The Reliquary as an important secondary character, but here he is front and center. We learn a lot about his dark past, his darker relatives and his peculiar investigative methods. When it comes to investigating the bizarre, he makes Fox Muldar look like a skeptic.

Also present is New York Times reporter William Smithback Jr., whose nose for a story inevitably gets him into trouble. He’s like a cross between Jimmy Olsen and something out of the movie, “The Front Page”.

Archaeologist Nora Kelly met Smithback in a novel called Thunderhead, and now works at the New York Museum of Natural History, which is where Relic and its sequel took place.

This time, however, the monster is not in the museum. This time the monster seems to be a serial killer who is after some very specific body parts for some mysterious reason.

The story begins with a murder, but kicks up a notch when the excavation for a lavish new apartment tower opens up a century old charnel house where the victims seem to have been mutilated in the same manner as the killer’s victims.

Pendergast has a sinking feeling that he knows what might be going on and enlists Nora, in her capacity as a forensic anthropologist, to examine the remains. They are blocked by the powerful businessman whose project it is, and who is also an influential backer at the museum.

As a subplot, the museum has fallen into the hand of the money managers, who see scientific inquiry as a poor relation of entertainment and money making potential of the building and its collection.

In this the men and women in the suits are not remarkably different from the early purveyors of public spectacle, the “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” kind of collectors who, a century earlier, had run Cabinets of Curiosities to line their pockets and fleece the poor. One of these had been above the site of the excavation and turns out to have played a role in those murders.

After a time it appears that the murderer may be trying to accumulate certain bodily fluids in an attempt to create a life and health prolonging elixir. This ties into Pendergast’s family history in ways which will become clear as the story progresses.

Because there are several people pursuing different lines of inquiry on this case, including the totally befuddled official authorities, who seem to be in the book for comic relief, there is lots of potential for cliffhangers and drama as we follow one investigation to a crucial point and then veer off to another. The authors are very good at keeping the tension in the air and keeping us readers on the edges of our easy chairs.

I wasn’t aware when I got this book that the authors have definitely embarked on connected series now, with Pendergast at its core. I am reminded more than a little of the old pulp magazine adventures of characters like Doc Savage and the Shadow, updated and expanded to novel length for new century.

It’s good stuff, and I’m definitely going to read some more of it.

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